Privacy & Security Q&A

Ex-FCC Chair Blasts Efforts to Change Lifeline, Net Neutrality, Privacy Rules

By Benjamin Herold — April 05, 2017 8 min read
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From net neutrality to online privacy to universal-service programs, the administration of President Donald Trump has taken direct aim at a number of the signature policy changes enacted by the Federal Communications Commission under the leadership of former chairman Tom Wheeler.

Wheeler isn’t happy.

“They seem to be looking backwards and saying, ‘How do we undo everything we voted against when we were in the minority?’ Wheeler told Education Week in an interview here at the annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking, where he was being honored for his work to expand access to affordable high-speed internet service.

“Every school ought to be worried,” he said.

During Wheeler’s tenure, the Democrat-controlled FCC passed a number of major reforms via party-line votes. The commission expanded and overhauled the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries pay for telecommunications services. It changed the federal Lifeline program to allow low-income families to use federal subsidies to pay for home broadband service. With its landmark Open Internet Order, the commission claimed the authority to regulate broadband service providers and declared that they must treat all online content the same.

And shortly before he stepped down in January, Wheeler pushed through new regulations that would have prevented broadband carriers from tracking and selling their customers’ data.

But nearly as soon as President Trump tapped Republican Ajit Pai as the commission’s new chair, the FCC set about the process of unwinding those efforts:

Up next could be net neutrality, which might prove the most contentious of all. When the FCC weighted related rules in 2014, the agency was flooded with comments from the public, many of them urging the commission to fight to protect the flow of free and open content over the internet.

To date, Chairman Pai has declined Education Week’s requests for an interview. His written dissents to the Wheeler-era orders, as well as his recent statements and blog posts, suggest that he supports the general principles of expanding broadband access and preserving an open internet, but takes issue with what he sees as regulatory overreach by the FCC in seeking to enact those principles.

Wheeler told Education Week he doesn’t buy it, questioning his successor’s commitment to expanding broadband access for schools and families.

“It’s what we always hear: ‘Oh, yeah, I’m all for it,’ even as they’re eviscerating it,” he said.

Following is a transcript of Wheeler’s conversation with Education Week, edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with net neutrality. What are the stakes for K-12 schools?

If you don’t have a fast, fair and open Internet, how can you provide the kind of access to information that students need?

An example that I dealt with at the end of my term was “zero rating.” Carriers set up a system where they say, “This will be the blessed content. It will have a [lower] charge when you subscribe. And by the way, this happens to be the content I own.” Innovative new services and ideas then have to compete against that which the network provider has already said it’s going to favor. And you can’t have fair competition.

The most important part of the Open Internet Rule was that we put a referee on the field. Because who knows how the internet is going to evolve? You need to have somebody there to throw a flag and say, “No, that’s not just and reasonable.”

Is there a feasible scenario where the types of online content that schools are using are relegated to a slow lane? Or is that fear overwrought?

The issue isn’t who can come up with the worst imaginable scenario. The reality is that absent the Open Internet rules, there’s nobody on the case if and when something like that happens. Internet service providers are left to make the rules. And that’s not good for anybody but the ISPs. We’re talking about four companies: Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Charter. They’re the ones who benefit from [rolling back net neutrality.] Everybody who uses the internet doesn’t benefit.

One issue where there has already been action is Lifeline. Chairman Pai moved to send decision-making around designating eligible broadband providers to the states. Do you agree with him that this will make the program stronger and expand broadband access for low-income families?

No. It’s just more double speak. It’s what we always hear: “Oh, yeah, I’m all for it,” even as they’re eviscerating it. Let’s remember that the people who are now running the commission voted against Lifeline [reform] in the first iteration.

So you think that this specific action will ‘eviscerate’ Lifeline broadband access?

When you make it hard for [companies] to get an eligible telecommunications carrier designation by forcing them to go to fifty-plus jurisdictions, then you make it hard for them to provide Lifeline service. It’s that simple. You can say “Oh, I’m all for [expanded broadband access]” all you want, but you are making it harder and more expensive for people to get.

Chairman Pai argues that one of the benefits of sending the decision-making back to the states would be ‘more cops on the beat’ to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse.

I think the people who don’t support Lifeline in the first place, or don’t support E-rate in the first place, always go and hide behind the “waste, fraud and abuse” smokescreen.

You don’t think Chairman Pai supports E-rate and Lifeline?

He didn’t vote for them either time.

You don’t think he’s committed to the policy goal of expanding broadband access for schools and low-income families?

He can speak for himself. I’m not going to speak for him.

Do school and libraries have reason to be afraid about what’s going to happen with E-rate?

Again, the people who are running the commission right now are the people who voted against the expansion and modernization of the E-rate program. And, the minute they got in office what did they do? They repudiated a report that we put out talking about the [E-rate’s] successes and how the program could be further improved. They immediately pulled that back and said, “This is not what the commission stands for. This is no longer commission policy.”

The facts speak for themselves. We’ll wait and see what happens, but it is of great concern.

What do you think schools and libraries should be paying attention to with E-rate moving forward?

If it goes to a per-pupil [payment system], I think that’s a real problem. That is particularly hard on rural schools, where the greatest challenges are. It means that rural schools end up paying, as a percentage, more for the broadband.

This is an issue where we have a national challenge. The answer is not to cut things back, or do it on a state-grant basis, a block-grant basis, or a per-pupil basis. We need to reach all students, and give every student the opportunity.

What about the bill President Trump signed Tuesday rolling back online privacy protections?

Every student ought to be worried about that. And every school ought to be worried about that. Because suddenly, all of the information that goes across the network is available to be sold.

Let’s go back. So the first thing [the new administration did] was come in and pull back on the E-rate report. The second thing was make it harder [for companies to get designated as a Lifeline provider.] The third thing was gut the privacy protections. The fourth thing is the Trump administration proposes a budget that cuts back heavily on education. And we’re supposed to sit here and think that this is a benign environment? I think the facts speak for themselves. We need to see this as a precursor.

On privacy, why should ISPs be regulated differently than internet companies such as Facebook and Google, who are allowed to mine customer data and use it for advertising?

Simple: With Facebook, I am voluntarily saying, “You know what? Yeah. I’ll trade you my information for a service.” And if I don’t like Google, I can go to Bing. If I don’t like Bing’s privacy policy, I can go to Mozilla.

But two-thirds of the American people have one choice or less in who they get to subscribe to for their internet service. The networks are monopoly providers.

When I go on my wireless device, and I make a telephone call, Verizon or AT&T cannot turn around and sell that information from the telephone call. When I use the same device and the same network to go on the web, they can turn around and sell that information. Why is that right? If my information as to who I’m calling should be protected, why isn’t my information as to who I’m visiting on the web protected likewise?

How do you see all these recent policy changes fitting together?

I wish they had an agenda in which they were looking forward and saying, “Here’s some of the new opportunities and new challenges of the new connected society.”

Instead, they seem to be looking backwards and saying, “How do we undo everything we voted against when were in the minority?”

Isn’t that the way politics works? The Republicans won.

Hey, I used to always say elections have consequences, and the Republicans used to always complain about me saying that.

Last question: Do you have any regrets that you didn’t do things in a more bipartisan manner, so that maybe some of your efforts might have withstood the transition?

I was able many times to work together with [Republican commissioner] Michael O’Rielly. He was great to work with. It’s very difficult to find a compromise unless people will really engage on addressing issue rather than throwing up smokescreens. And that was what I found in other circumstances.

Photo of former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler: Stephen Voss for Education Week-File

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.